blog post / opinion

How the Legacy Media Can Be Saved

Scientific articles are credible because they contain metainformation and strictly segregate facts from opinions. The news media need to incorporate this in order to regain our trust.

by T.J. Nelson

blog post / opinion

Y esterday I set down my dog-eared copy of Collected Papers of Herbert Marcuse, Volume 6, turned on the low carbon footprint LED light over my Che poster, put my slave ... I mean dog ... out in the back yard, lowered the blinds, and started reading The Guardian online.

You may snicker, but sometimes they have some good stuff there. True, it's great for finding out about those wacky folks on the other side of the political aisle, but their star shot up when they published Eric Snowden's stuff about the NSA. Seeing that in the Guardian was like seeing a story on contaminated lettuce in the shopping news: it was the last place you'd expect to see concern about intrusive government. Maybe we have something in common after all.

I didn't get far, though, before I was confronted with an online survey. After I finished lying answering their questions, I had a startling revelation: I came here for an alternative viewpoint, but what I really need is a credible source of news. Even stuff from the foreign media is questionable: think of all those baby pictures of St. Trayvon in the Mail.

Every news source is contaminated by bias: even if it's accurate, it's still shaded by the writer's editorial decisions as to which stories are worth covering. Journalists surely know this, but so far the only solution is for the paper to admit up front what its politics are, as the Guardian does. (Many of their stories are contaminated by political opinion, but it's not as bad as it sounds: I once counted that only 30% of their stories on America are about race.)

But at least they don't make stuff up. The American news media lost credibility back in 2004 when Dan Rather at CBS News, impatient with democracy, tried to change the outcome of our elections with a fake news story about George W. Bush. Dan Rather lost his job, but the incident revealed systemic deficiencies that have not yet been addressed. News articles here rarely disclose the views of the author, making it difficult to extract the facts from the contaminating opinion, and there is undisclosed selection bias. Rathergate taught us that national news organizations cannot be trusted to tell the truth even when truth matters most.

For a while people struggled along, knowing that all their news sources are contaminated. But one by one the websites went behind a paywall, forcing us to use our 1337 haxxor skillz ingenuity to read them. Eventually that became too much trouble for too little benefit.

Even commercials today are more credible than the news. In one commercial for a drug called Stelara, a model swans about cheerfully while the narrator warns that the product lowers your ability to fight infections and causes tuberculosis, cancer, headaches, brain seizures, confusion, and vision problems which “may be signs of a rare potentially fatal brain condition.” It turns out they're talking about reversible posterior leukoencephalopathy syndrome. Yikes!

Of course, we laugh at that commercial and its apparently horrible product because we know the government forced the company to disclose all those adverse effects. But the company also benefits because it's perceived as being honest.

That might be why the Millennials get all their news from social media and comics like Jon Stewart. It's easier to extract the facts when the bias of the presenter is disclosed in advance, but selection bias is harder to account for because it's invisible.

Selection bias even happens in scientific journals. I dropped my subscriptions to Science and Nature because of this. Lately, though, they seem to be gradually improving. Here's a sampling of Science's current headlines:

This is representative: about half the articles look like real science, and the rest look like somebody pushing an agenda. Ironically, it helps that there are now so many global warming articles the publishers have started their own journals. Nature, for instance, has Nature Climate Change where every article is about global warming. Putting all the AGW stuff in one place is good for everybody.

In this week's Nature we learn that C.G. Begley, the guy who says cancer research is not reproducible, is now pushing something called “Good Institutional Practice (GIP)”. Those of us who have dealt with stuff like Good Laboratory Practice, Good Manufacturing Practice, Good Clinical Practice, and so on know that it's mostly a way of making science really, really expensive, slower and more accountable to those who love accountability, i.e. bureaucrats.

But we need to know about it, so it's a good news story. There are many other credible articles, like the one about plants. The question is: do we give more credence to scientific articles because of the authority of scientists, or because they're about topics that almost no one cares about (in this case, farmers who blow stuff up with TNT in their spare time)?

I suspect it's neither. What the most credible ones share is self-contained metainformation: a Methods section, where the reader is informed in excruciating detail where the researchers bought their chemicals, what procedures they tried to follow, and what software they used to try to squeak some statistical significance from the results. Every substantial fact is backed up by evidence or a citation to someone else's evidence. And of course, it's all peer-reviewed by impartial referees.

It is hard to keep the peer-review system in science honest. Editors, desperate for content, ask authors to select their own referees. Competition also creates hostile reviewers who reject papers for personal reasons.

Thus, it's not a perfect system, but it's better than no review at all. The legacy media can't get away any more with printing unsourced assertions. If they quote somebody, they must link to a high-quality audio recording. If they state something as a fact, they must show their evidence or give a citation to somebody else, just as in a scientific paper. Proof or it didn't happen.

Too many reporters are ideologues. Ideologues try to maintain the ideological purity of the group by expelling nonconformists. That is the purpose of ‘racist’, ‘liberal’, and ‘RINO’, which have lost most of their original meaning and now serve primarily as terms of social exclusion. Groupthink doesn't occur automatically. It is a way of rewarding group loyalty; to stop it we need alternative ways of conferring status that are not based on group loyalty.

If all this sounds like a lot of work, it's because the problems are deep and long-standing. But we need a credible news media for our system to function. We can't just get all our news from comics. Besides, if I hear that joke about Hillary's handwriting in the snow one more time, I'm going to scream.

See also:

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sep 06, 2015; revised sep 07, 2015; updated sep 09, 2015

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